William Ashley Sunday - was to those living in the late 19th and early 20th century what Billy Graham is to us - and just in case you've never heard of the previous century's large evangelistic revival meeting preaching Billy - I'd love to dedicate this post to his life and work.
Baby William - or as we'll call him for the rest of this post - Billy - was the youngest son born (in 1862) to a poor German couple who'd settled in Ames, Iowa. Just weeks after Billy was born - his father died of pneumonia shortly into his time volunteering with the 23rd Iowa Volunteer Regiment's service for the Union army during the Civil War. This tragic loss to the Sunday family resulted in the family's fortunes dwindling to the point that at age 10 Billy's mother sent Billy and an older brother to an orphans home - no longer able to pay for their care herself.
Orphanage life - though very hard on Billy and leaving him with life-long fears of loss and abandonment - did teach him a few useful things: how to live in an orderly fashion, how to work hard, and that he had raw athletic talent. However useful those lessons were - Billy was eager to leave and by 14 was on his own - exchanging farm work for food and board with the Scott's family in Nevada, Iowa. Though Billy's unstable and impoverished life didn't not afford him an abundance of educational opportunities - he had a knack for pursuing learning on his own - such as with the Scott family - who encouraged him to attend high school. Even though Billy didn't graduate - he was widely considered to have a better than average education when compared to his peers.
By age 18 Billy - known for his athletic ability - was recruited by the Marshalltown, Iowa fire-brigade team (an early form of fire-department) and played now and again with the local baseball team until he was finally talent-scouted and sent off to play for the Chicago White Stockings as a center fielder. He was fast - and probably due to his early life's troubles - focused and hard-working. On top of that however - he was handsome, had a winning personality - and quickly became a hit with the fans. Billy's level of responsibility and reliability made him popular with team owners and backers too. Though traded around a bit - he frequently came to have leadership responsibilities on his teams including team manager and team captain.
In either 1886 or 1887 Billy's team-mates were out of town one weekend - and Billy was wandering around town by himself and came upon an out-door church meeting. Drawn in by the group's singing hymns Billy remembered his mother singing went in. Soon Billy began returning and participating more and more until after some conversations with the leader of the group - a matronly woman - about struggles he had with the nature of becoming a Christian he converted and renounced drinking, swearing, gambling and altered his behavior so much so quickly that it was immediately apparent to not only his teammates but his fans. His transformation drew attention from churches and communities as the team traveled about playing games and he began speaking at YMCA's.
In 1891 - after a dispute that lead to the formation of a new league - Billy - rather than breaking his contract to join the new league - gave up his career in baseball - and the $3,500 salary (equivalent to about $90,000 now) and instead went to work as the assistant to a then famous revival preacher named Wilbur Chapman for $996 per year (or about $25,000 now). By this time Billy was married and was starting a family. His role as assistant required him to be out of town more and more - but he and his wife were committed to ministry. Billy's work required him to go to the next town - ahead of Chapman and set up prayer meetings, Bible studies, and network among the local churches. He often pitched the meeting tent himself - and slept under it to provide security. His work with Chapman also became his education in all the pastoral arts of the day - how to efficiently handle all the logistics of a traveling ministry in the 1890's, how to project his voice, and how to preach spell-binding rousing sermons.
By 1896 Billy split off from Chapman and launched his own ministry. The strain on his finances and young family increased - but they soldiered on. Billy continued handling all the pre tent-revival logistics - but added to these considerable duties - all the responsibilities of developing his own sermon materials - honing his own delivery and ministering to his own growing crowds. Billy sometimes promoted his ministry by putting on his professional baseball uniform and arranging for spontaneous baseball games and series - often playing on multiple teams made up from local businesses and organizations. Baseball crowds led to evangelistic tent revival meeting crowds.
Billy's preaching style drew heavily on his own athleticism - and his few notes when he had them - were printed large enough so he could read them at a glance as he raced from one edge of the stage to the other - striking one after another of his characteristic poses. By this time he had a well-trained voice and had years of sermon training under Chapman - and knew his business well. Crowds gathered in ever greater numbers. Billy's ministry began to thrive and though his family felt his absence sharply - their financial needs were no longer so great. There were over 70 Midwestern cities that Billy regularly traveled through and Billy called this route the "Kerosene Circuit" as most of these towns had no electricity and relied heavily on keorsene to light his revival tent. His reputation and ministry continued to grow - until one day when a sudden and severe storm destroyed his tent.
The loss of his tent along with the now unendurable strain his absence was on his family signaled the need for a change. The heavy burden that had fallen to his wife of not only raising 4 children (the youngest an infant) by herself - but also running the household and supporting Billy's ministry. The ministry also had seemed to stagnate a bit. The hardships Billy suffered in his early life made the endless time away from family eventually too painful to bear - he struggled with loneliness. So the Sunday's came to the decision to allow another couple to raise their children so they could travel together. Mrs. Helen Sunday became the business manager - a task she seemed well suited for. Soon - towns scheduled in advance for the Sunday's ministry to arrive - engaging in a barn-raising style wooden tabernacle-building event and then welcoming not just Billy to the stage - but Billy plus his co-ed staff of 26 including singers, organizers, and evangelists - both men and women who led special meetings focusing on issues specific to men, women and children.
Sunday's ministry had enormous influence - greater than any others' it seemed - and I would argue that aspects of it would be recognizable to any conservative church goer today - even if they didn't know the origins. Sunday was unapologetically out-spoken about the inerrancy of scripture, the evils of drinking, gambling, swearing, promiscuity and every other form of sexual sin. Standing up to speak in a splendid and fashionable suit with all the accessories he preached loud, eloquent, energetic, forceful and Bible intensive sermons. He became involved in the temperance movement and politicized over the issue of Prohibition. If you were in a conservative, "Bible-belt" church recently - you probably saw many of the same qualities in the service.
Some of the more unique features - for the day at least - to Sunday's preaching style were that he rarely participated in the bashing of other denominations. This was back in a time when members of other denominations were regularly counted as much among the lost as someone who'd never set foot in a church in their entire lives. Referral cards filled out by revival meeting attendees where they indicated what denomination they grew up - were returned to those denominations - unlike many preachers of the day who would return such cards only to their own denomination. His evangelistic and worship teams were made up of men and women. He and his staff also spoke openly and specifically about the evils of "amusements" as he called sins that distracted believers and ensnared sinners. Sermons on these topics were so graphic and explicit that it was not uncommon for a dozen men to faint during the service. But the crowds loved it! So much so that soon - the Sundays were making in a day what their peers were making in a year. Critics of Sunday's ministry said that he was preaching the "old doom and gloom" and frightening people to the cross. Others decried the explicit nature of his "amusements" messages. I searched and searched - but kept coming up with only this clip from Sunday preaching live - in Winona, Minnesota of all places. There are other videos - but are more biographical where as this one - though of frustrating quality to modern ears - is a concentrated clip of Sunday himself preaching.
Billy's ministry declined after 1919 - whether due to the end of World War 1 - or due to the advent of new technology (sermons broadcast by radio) or his becoming a somewhat less energetic and handsome a preacher than he'd been in the past. Regardless - his influence lives on in churches and the expectation of churches all over the country.